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THE GREAT OUTDOORS: A GUIDE TO ORANGE COUNTY RECREATION
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Ageless Summer

San Onofre Still Provides a Haven for the Old Men of the Surf

May 28, 1999|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The road to Old Man's is long and dusty. But a loyal group has found its way there for more than four decades. Young surfers often deride its gentle waves and old timers who surf there as "Geezerville," not as the Pacific's Valhalla for aged longboarders.

Entry prerequisites: "You gotta be bald and have a pot belly," a lone surfer said.

To outsiders it may seem so. But to people like Sam Conroy, E.J., ol' Vetter, Evie and the rest of the gang at Old Man's, it's more than a sandy beach. It has been their outdoor clubhouse, a place to barbecue, raise children, sing songs and hold marathon parties in celebration of a Southern California lifestyle.

Located off Interstate 5 at Basilone Road, the beach is found down a dusty road past the Point at San Ono, as it's called. Continue several peaks south and pull in between a row of surf vans, RVs and two clumps of bamboo.

On a recent day, Conroy, 68, a retired school teacher who founded San Clemente High School's surf team, pulled out a longboard from his van and chatted with a reporter.

From Conroy's point of view, the younger generation hasn't learned about "surf etiquette yet." He doesn't have a paunch and he seems as strong as an ox.

"Look over there, you see E.J.?" Conroy said, pointing to Everett Johnston Moshier. "He's 83 years old and he's been surfing here since 1937."

With the passing of Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison and Tom "Opai" Wert, Moshier is the ranking grand old man of Old Man's. Each Wednesday, Moshier tools up in his '66 VW van, the one he proudly says he hand painted with a can of blue paint and a paint brush. Like him, the van still runs.

These old timers are the last of an era. They are the founders of the San Onofre Surfing Club and over time have slipped across more waves than they can count. They and San Ono are windows to an earlier time, when surfing meant saying friendly hellos and sharing a camaraderie that few now enjoy.

"In the old days, it was kind of like a big family," said Jim Gilloon, 71. "Gosh, so many of us raised our kids here on the beach. I don't know where else you can find a little paradise like this."

Earle Alldredge, 82, has come since 1957. During that time, Alldredge has brought his children to San Ono, and has shared a wide range of personal passages with those at Old Man's including his retirement, becoming a widower, and recently, two heart bypass operations.

"My doctor says I can't go back into the water until June," he said. "The reason I keep coming is you can come out here and forget all your troubles. I just get in the water and everything disappears. I come out and I feel great. I can't wait to get back in."

Mike Reardon, one of the youngsters at 50, brings boxes of fresh-picked oranges and sometimes avocados from his Fallbrook home and leaves them on the sand for anyone's consumption. Another surfer has left a box of books for those who want to sit and read.

"In any other social situation I'm an old guy," says Reardon, grinning from ear to ear.

And there's plenty of ribbing going on. Evie Fletcher, 72, likes to get into the act. As several old timers arrived, she saluted them with a loud, "This is the place where all the nasty, rotten people come."

Fletcher recalled surfing in the earlier days.

"I had a car and we used to stay the night at Capistrano cliffs when it was a big vacant lot," she said. "Now it's nothing but houses. But we camped up there, sleeping in our cars or inside sleeping bags."

When winter arrived and it turned cold they improvised, she said.

"They didn't have wetsuits yet," Fletcher said. "I remember surfing with Marge [Calhoun] and I and Alice Peterson would wear long johns, tights. I used to wear a red bathing suit and a white sweater that I tied around my waist to keep warm."

Age doesn't matter here. Stories do. The sandy beach is more along the lines of "Lake Wobegon," Garrison Keillor's fictional town, with boundaries that are in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.

If you're friendly and like to surf, you're welcome. But don't overstep the aloha tradition established here. If you ride, ride as a guest. No one owns this beach or its waves. If you yell at others while in the water or vibe them with attitude and generally cause a problem, you become persona non grata.

But Old Man's is changing. Many of the younger surfers haven't learned proper wave manners, as Conroy claimed. They shout and hoot at anyone who takes off on the same wave as them, oblivious of the respect that age should command.

Fletcher said the crowds have grown to the point that she and her friends no longer surf on weekends.

"People are getting very greedy out there," she said. "There are pictures of us with 20 people on a wave. Nowadays they cuss you out like one gal with tattoos did who cut me off the wave. We used to let people on a wave. If they wanted to join us, we'd just say, 'C'mon.' "

Even in death, the gang at Old Man's knows how to party. Death here isn't somber. It's attacked the same way life is.

"When someone dies we have a paddle out," Alldredge said. "Like for Opai we had maybe about 70 or 80 people out there in the water. Then we have a party. You should see it. We got guitars, ukuleles, everything. It's a lot better than all this moan and groan stuff that people usually do at funerals."

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